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Archive for November 2011

Nekobukuro and Namco Namjatown

Posted by Shaun

Last Saturday, my J-pop class took a field trip to a cat cafe.
I was disappointed, because there's no actual food at a cat cafe, or at least not at this cat cafe. You go and pet cats, and that's it. It was cute, sure, but I couldn't really get myself psyched about it. Something about the air in there, and all the sleeping cats, made me just want to fall asleep. Maybe it was because I was hungry. So I stayed for a little bit, but it wasn't long before I really wanted to leave. Although I did a lot of stuff last Saturday, it wasn't exactly my most with-it day. I came home and fell asleep right after dinner, and then proceeded to sleep until 10:30am, so I guess I was actually really exhausted.

But anyway, the cat cafe. It was called Nekobukuro, because "neko" is cat, and "bukuro," which actually means "bag," is the end of "Ikebukuro," the neighborhood where it was located ("Ikebukuro" is actually "pond bag," who knows why). You seem to be able to make a lot of cute words out of "Ikebukuro," for whatever reason. There's a statue of an owl outside one exit of the station called "Ikefukurou," because "fukurou" means owl, and there's a new restaurant that opened in one of the department stores on Friday that I've seen advertised all over the Ikebukuro train station. It's called "Tabe-bukuro," because "Taberu" means "to eat," and the mascot is a little owl wearing oven mitts and a chef hat. It's adorable.

Prof. Freedman pets a kitty

After staring at and attempting to pet cute cats for a while, I left with a couple of my classmates to go to Sunshine City, the big (impossibly big) shopping mall in Ikebukuro, that happened to be right next to Nekobukuro.
I say Sunshine City is impossibly big because there's no way you can see it in one day. There's a bajillion stores, an aquarium, and event hall, and a whole indoor theme park.
The indoor theme park ended up being our destination. It's called Namjatown, and it was created by the arcade game company Namco. There are some indoor rides and some really confusing activities, but our destination was the food theme parks.

Yes, I said food theme parks.

Our first stop was Gyoza Stadium. I didn't take any pictures, but it's a bunch of gyoza stands. Supposedly you get a certificate if you try every flavor. Unfortunately you have to pay 300 yen admission to Namjatown and then you have to pay for everything you eat while you're there, which can get steep if you don't control yourself.
Gyoza Stadium, while exciting, wasn't our real destination. I just needed to eat something of substance before heading to the next stop, Ice Cream City.

Ice Cream City has a bunch of ice cream stands where they can make you really cute sundaes shaped like teddy bears and things, but for me the real highlight was the cup ice museum. It's a room full of freezers of little cups of ice cream, with all sorts of flavors to try. Once again, you have to buy every flavor you try, so at a few hundred yen a pop, I had to choose wisely. I quickly settled on unagi, since it's one of my favorite Japanese foods. It's often described as barbequed eel over rice. The sauce is sort of sweet so, I mean, turning that into an ice cream? What could go wrong, right?

Unagi ice cream

With the lid off and the topping added

The flavor was so-so. I don't like my ice cream to be very salty, so the slight salt aftertaste at the end was a little too much. I could sorta see how it tasted like unagi, but not really. Some of the other flavors I will never try with my own money were miso ramen and Indian curry. Flavors I might try with my own money were different kinds of sake, wasabi, milk from Hokkaido, tofu, mikan, melon, wait I can't afford all this ice cream.

Catch Up Part 3: Roppongi, Shinjuku, Karuizawa, Takarazuka, and Parfaits

Posted by Shaun

This post has no real substance except to show off some pictures, but let's get rolling with it anyway.

Tokyo Tower at night, Roppongi
I took this picture after dragging myself all the way to Roppongi, which is a neighborhood with a pretty bad reputation, to go see a movie at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Roppongi is sort of like the Japanese Hollywood. Lots of rich people, and particularly rich foreigners, live there, and occasionally you can see famous actors and actresses, not that I would know who any of them are. So in a way it's pretty upscale, but it also has a seedy side. Lots of people come there to go clubbing, and supposedly there's a lot of cheap places, but they're really sketchy. From what I've read, a lot of the human trafficking in Japan goes on in Roppongi. Roppongi or Kabuki-cho, which is basically the red-light district of Shinjuku. Two places I plan to generally avoid. But as long as you stay out of the clubs in Roppongi, you're probably okay, and the movie theater where the Tokyo International Film Festival was held was freakin' upscale. They had student tickets for 500 yen, half-price, but you couldn't reserve them in advance, so by the time we got there, the tickets for Albert Nobbs were already sold out, so we ended up seeing a different movie, Kaliphah, instead. It was interesting but it wasn't amazing. The director Q&A at the end helped me appreciate it a bit more, though. It also made me want to go back home for True/False. Maybe next year. I've missed that film festival too many times since high school.
Anyway, I was pretty grouchy after finding out that I couldn't go see Albert Nobbs, so I snapped this picture and grouched to myself that seeing Tokyo Tower all lit up was the only good thing about stinking Roppongi.

I think the next day, I went to Shinjuku with my friend, who studied abroad at Knox when I was a freshman. She wanted to show me the observatory where you can get a free view of Tokyo.

Terrible picture, but my family probably wants to see photos with me in them.

Tokyo is ridiculously huge. Even though I was looking at these buildings with my own eyes, I still couldn't really grasp how many there were. I'm not in the Midwest anymore, folks.

Does this look familiar? Yep, it's just like the one in New York, but it's in Shinjuku. My (Japanese) friend was like "Ugh, I'm so sick of Japanese people, they think they're so cool, but all the do is copy things!" It's a funny comment because historically Japan has imported a lot of its culture from other countries (China, the US, other Western countries) and then made it its' own, and Japanese commentators have been torn as to whether this is Japan's way of adapting or Japan selling itself short. Western commentators tend to have been on the side of "Japan should focus on its' own culture! Kimono and Zen are beautiful! Japanese wearing Western clothes is just vulgar!" even if it made people's lives more convenient.

We went to a cafe, and I got a heart drawn in my coffee. Ahaha. I've still never had real cappuccino. This was something called a "Flat White." Which was somehow different than cappuccino. They had cappuccino on their menu but I guess they couldn't draw designs in it or something?  
Me, outside the place where we were staying in Karuizawa
 Next on the Japan Study agenda was a trip to Karuizawa in Nagano, because Waseda has facilities out there that we can use. It was awesome to get to see mountains, but we were watching a movie on the bus so I didn't take a picture of them like I should have. The whole trip was largely disappointing. We couldn't leave until after classes on Saturday and then we had to get back by dinner time on Sunday, so we didn't have much time to do anything. Plus it was freezing cold, and they made us wake up early on Sunday morning. The whole trip was basically just to get us all together so they could tell us about the cultural practicum choices, but we did get to have a little Halloween party on Saturday night. Honestly, the highlight for me was watching ダリーンは外国人, Dariin wa Gaikokujin, My Darling is a Foreigner, on the bus, which was a really cute film about a relationship between a Japanese woman and an American man. It's based on a comic series about the author's marriage, so the characters actually seemed believable. The plot was predictable, but hey, you need some cute, feel-good fare every once in a while. It was actually what inspired me to rent some Japanese movies.

Next, my sister came to visit Tokyo for the weekend! It was stressful because I was performing with my dance club in the Waseda festival that weekend, but it was a lot of fun at the same time. We went to go see a Takarazuka performance, which is an all-female musical theater revue, which means that women play both male and female roles. It's a lot of fun because, since the men are women, they're more beautiful than real men, and the women are more beautiful than real women too. The whole thing is really spectacular and over-the top and dramatic. The performance we saw had two parts. The first was the actual play, called 仮面の男, Kamen no Otoko, The Man in the Mask, and it was a really difficult to follow story about this power struggle between the king of France and his twin brother, who was exiled and made to wear an iron mask so he couldn't take over the thrown. Or something. The second half was this crazy Las Vegas themed dance performance called Royal Straight Flush, which had more glitter than I've ever seen in my entire life. I don't get to see a lot of high-budget musical theater, so seeing how they could stage things with absolutely no limits was pretty awesome. There was this scene where everyone was gossiping about the king, and all of the court ladies had these hand puppets of bright red lips that they first stuck out from off stage and then became part of the musical number. And there was a cute scene where Phillipe, the exiled twin brother, and the girl he was falling in love with, were doing shadow puppets of the tortoise and the hare to show that Phillipe still had the opportunity to take the thrown, and they used the stage lights to project the shadow puppets on the screen and make it look like the light was coming from Phillipe's lantern. I think in the future, if I have enough money, I want to go see another play that isn't set in ye olde France, so that the male characters look less like the female characters.

Me and my sister on the stairs in the theater lobby, in front of the poster for the performance
 On Saturday night, the highlight was a restaurant in Ikebukuro called Milky Way, where they have parfaits. You can often see girls in anime eating these huge delicious-looking desserts, so we were dying to try one. Milky Way was great on a rainy Saturday night, because it didn't actually close until 10pm but it wasn't very crowded. The whole theme of the place is obviously, the stars, so they had horoscopes on the place-mats as well as a parfait for each sign of the zodiac. It was really cute. Plus since they weren't busy, they kept refilling our water glasses, so we felt pretty free to just sit and catch up for a while. Relaxing places like this are hard to find in Tokyo. So are places where they refill your water glass. For some reason Japan tends to be stingy about the beverages.
 This was the parfait for my zodiac sign, Taurus, and I wanted to try it mostly because it had dorayaki sticking out of it. Dorayaki is basically anko red bean paste in a pancake, and we'rd been talking about Doraemon, th famous blue earless cat from the 22nd century who loves dorayaki, in my J-pop class, so I wanted to try and eat some. Besides the dorayaki, it had shirotama (I think that's what they're called?) - the chewy white squishy things in the foreground, green tea flavored cream, anko, vanilla ice cream, the star shaped cookies at the top tasted like ginger snaps, and the bottom was anmitsu, which is a Japanese dessert that's a lot like a fruit cocktail. So despite its hugeness, this thing was actually pretty light.
 My sister got a chocolatey one. I forget which zodiac sign it was. It looks huge, but the outer cup is full of dry ice, so it was steaming when it came to our table. The inner cup with the actual parfait in it is a lot smaller.
Even in the beginning of November, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Tokyo. Here's me, in front of the game center across the street from Milky Way, posing with this giant stuffed Rilakkuma, decked out for Christmas (Rilakkuma's name means "relax bear," from リラクス "rirakusu" and くま"kuma," meaning bear. The Japanese "r" can be romanized as an r or an l).

Catch Up Part 2: Tsukiji Market and Sushi-Dai

Posted by Shaun

On Tuesday, October 25, I hauled myself out of my futon at 4:15am, pulled on some clothes in a daze, and made my way out into the deserted streets of suburban Saitama.
My destination: the first train into Tokyo, at 4:57am.
The reason?
Sushi, to be specific. I was headed to Tsukiji Market, the home of the Japanese fishing industry, where tuna are auctioned to wholesalers every morning at 5:30am to be rushed to the upscale restaurants of the world, and where it's possible to eat fish that's basically fresh from the sea.
I knew I was going to miss the tuna auctions, because my commute didn't allow me to get to Tsukiji-shijo station before 6am, but due to a comedy of errors, none of our party actually made it to the auctions.

The sun is barely rising over Tsukji market. Note the trucks and the buildings that look the same.
There are actually two markets at Tsukiji: the inner market, for wholesalers, and the outer market, for regular people. Tsukiji subway station is nearest the outer market, and Tsukiji-shijo is nearest the inner market. Of those of us who made it to the area early enough, one went to Tsukiji and the other went to Tsukiji-shijo. My friend who was at Tsukiji-shijo then proceeded to try to direct my friend at Tsukiji station to his location by telling him, "I'm by two buildings that look the same, there's a lot of trucks, there's a lot of fish."
You can imagine how well that went, with such detailed instructions. In the scuzzy industrial area that's Tsukiji market, most of the buildings look the same, and both markets have a lot of trucks and a lot of fish. The rest of us got to hear them bicker about this for the entire three hours we waited in line for our sushi breakfast.

We had decided on Sushi-dai as our restaurant of choice. It came highly reviewed on the internet, so we figured we'd try it. Once we were all together, the first challenge was finding it, while half-asleep, on empty stomachs.
The main street we faced for the first half of the wait.
Once we located it, at 6:15 or 6:30, there was already a line that went from the doors of the restaurant to the edge of the side street on which it was located, then, to make room for the trucks and people-movers (fish-movers?) that are always zipping about the market, the line broke off into another line some around the corner that faced the main road. We got in line, and we waited.

Somehow the time passed rather quickly. I think I zoned out for most of the wait.
Finally, an employee asked us how many were in our party, and we waited until she directed us to move to the second half of the line.

We took a celebratory photo because we could actually see the sign.

It was a grueling wait.
We eventually got to the front of the line, right up against the door.
A peak behind the curtain
 We were flooded with relief when we finally made it into the restaurant. We could sit down for the first time in about three hours, and we were immediately served a hot piece of omelet that we were told to eat right away. My chopsticks were shaking in my hands as I lifted it to my mouth. Delicious!


They also served us unlimited tea. And soup.
There were seven pieces of sushi in the set we ordered, and I only regret that I ate them too fast. You're supposed to eat sushi in one bite because apparently the flavor changes if you eat it bit by bit, but these pieces were enormous, and with my tiny mouth I couldn't really figure out how to taste it all slowly and eat the whole thing in one bite.

Naturally I forgot what almost everything was, but it all tasted amazing and was beautiful to look at.

After our seven courses were up, I decided to try the famed "fattiest of the fatty tuna," oo-toro. I'd heard it was delicious, but it's too expensive for me to really eat usually. Even though it was something like 700 yen a piece here, I figured there was no better place to eat oo-toro than when it was fresh from the sea.

Man, but that was a good piece of fish. It melted in my mouth. I'm glad I tried it. I'm even glad I took terrifically unflattering pictures with it.

When we left Sushi-dai, I was giddy. I'd had about 3 cups of tea, my stomach was pleasantly full of delicious fish, and much to my surprise, the sun had risen over Tsukiji market. It was about 10am. Even though I had class from 2:45pm to 6pm that day, I've never been in such a good mood.

Afterwards, we explored the inner and outer markets, which are absolute, disgusting, fascinating chaos. There's boxes of fish everywhere, and sometimes there's even fish blood all over the place. It's that fresh?

Salmon roe

Tuna steaks in a freezer

Tuna carving knives?

Bales of dried squid from the outer market

Catch-Up Part 1: Sengakuji, bentoo workshop, Tokyo Hike

Posted by Shaun

On my way home from the Immigration Office to apply for permission to work a part time job on my student visa, I stopped at Sengakuji, the temple that has the graves of the Forty-Seven Ronin. I'm bad at explaining the story, so you can read it here.
The English brochure was probably the best 10 yen I've spent, partly because you just can't get things for 10 yen, and partly because it was actually a very informative brochure. I didn't know much about the history or the Chuushingura story, so it was very helpful.

Statue of the leader of the revenge plot

Some of the graves

That same day, I went to a kyaraben (character lunch box, from character bentoo) workshop at the Cookpad office.
I made a Pikachu lunch, some healthy meatballs, sunflowers made out of little weenies, and flowers made out of cherry tomatoes. It was a little awkward because I was the only person who signed up for the workshop, but I got to talk to the Cookpad staff, and that was fun.
The bentoo itself wasn't actually that hard to make, but I didn't have to make the thin omelet that I wrapped around the rice balls that made up Pikachu's face and ears.
Meat balls and the one flower that didn't fit in the box
Pikachu lunch. One of the employees called Pikachu's face 情けない, "hopeless/pitiful," but I'm not sure I agree?

Bad hair day, bad skin day and Pikachu.
That Sunday was the Tokyo Hike, where I walked 21km from Keio University to Waseda University. It was tiring, but I met some nice people. We had a lot of fun talking, so it didn't seem that long.

In front of Tokyo Tower
Hello Kitty tour bus and police car in front of the Diet Building

Surprising amount of food for the 500 yen Hike registration fee. And they had extras!
Me and the Waseda mascot, the Big Bear (Ookuma) before the Hike ending ceremony.
Tokyo Hanabi dance club and a tap-dancing club I forgot the name of, join one of the Ouendan (Japanese-style male cheerleading) members in cheering us on for our hard work at the Tokyo Hike